Keele awarded funding to research management of a major crop pest in Africa

Posted on 06 April 2017

Dr William Kirk, Senior Lecturer in the School of Life Sciences at Keele University, has been awarded a prestigious Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Foundation Award.

The £596,000 project, for Global Agriculture and Food Systems Research, funded through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), will allow Dr Kirk and his team to carry out a two-year project titled ‘Improving food safety by reducing pesticide residues: developing a pheromone alternative to insecticides for control of thrips on legumes in Kenya.’

The aim of the project is to provide an alternative to insecticides for managing the bean flower thrips in cowpea and other similar crops in Kenya - reducing the amount of pesticide used and so improving food safety. It will also lead to higher yields, better safety for farm workers, reduced environmental impact and more sustainable agriculture.

The GCRF Global Agriculture and Food Systems research aims to leverage the UK’s world-class research base to help ensure a safe, nutritious and sustainable supply of food for a growing population, and improving the health of billions of people in low and middle income countries.

Dr Kirk commented:

“Cowpea is rarely eaten in the UK, but it is a major crop across Africa south of the Sahara, where it is estimated that 38 million households (194 million people) grow it and harvest a total of six million tonnes per year. It’s an important source of protein to the urban and rural poor who cannot afford meat, fish or milk products. Unfortunately, many smallholder farmers apply chemical insecticides too frequently while struggling to control pests, so that crops for domestic consumption often contain unacceptably high levels of pesticide residues.”

The GCRF project will investigate the use of a synthetic pheromone, previously identified by Dr Kirk’s team at Keele, to attract and trap the main pest of the cowpea - the bean flower thrips - reducing the need for pesticides.

Dr Kirk explained:

“Bean flower thrips are very small insects that are resistant to many insecticides. We’ve previously identified two chemicals produced as a pheromone by the thrips for mating - we plan to synthesise this pheromone and then test it in the laboratory and in crops. We will be able to use the pheromone to attract large numbers of thrips to sticky traps for mass trapping and to disrupt and prevent mating. Another approach we will test is the use of the pheromone to attract thrips away from the crop to areas that can be spot-sprayed with insecticide. This method uses far less pesticide and it is not sprayed on the crop, which avoids residues. We will also develop the use of the pheromone for a method known as “lure and infect” in which we will attract thrips to a device where the thrips pick up spores of a naturally occurring fungus that kills thrips. The thrips then disperse with the spores and spread them to other thrips on the crop.”

The other investigators are Dr Falko Drijfhout and Dr Matt O’Brien in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences at Keele, Dr Tom Pope and Dr Rob Graham at Harper Adams University, and Dr Sevgan Subramanian and Dr Amanuel Tamiru at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya. The two-year project will employ two post-doctoral research associates and a technician in Kenya.